BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 119

Anna Falcini, In Between the Folds are Particles, at Oriel Davies, Newtown

Long before visiting Anna Falcini’s In Between the Folds are Particles at Oriel Davies, I’d decided that I was going to forget all previous knowledge of the artist Gwen John. I’d come to the show as a blank slate.

My first encounter is with a contemporary print of John’s portrait of Girl in a Blue Dress. To the right of this is a copy of one of her letters in which she is thanking a man with an impressively double-barrelled name for purchasing her ‘little’ painting. Next there is a series of eight photographs of various contemporary women pictured looking at the same painting. Mostly we see the backs of their heads, though one woman is clearly wearing a sari. In front of these is a glass-lidded table containing letters, some typed, some hand-written. There is a sketchbook scribbled with pencil and a concertina-ed line of flash cards stapled with swatches of material and numbered pantone colours. One appears to be a poem. The letters talk of the peace of looking. There is an overriding sense of repetition, of presence and of absence. I’m intrigued.

Then, no longer able to ignore the sound of tolling bells coming from the huge screen in the middle of the Gallery, I take a seat on the undulating wooden bench. There’s a cityscape. A smoggy periwinkle sky. Where is it? It takes me some time to work it out. Then I see it. The Eiffel Tower. It’s Paris.

The film is long. Slowly, then urgently, a train chugs and then rushes through a station. I strain to read the sign – Dieppe. People stroll through parks or sit on benches smoking, an ocean rolls turquoise waves, leaves rustle, hands turn over mounted drawings and footsteps climb a winding staircase. The camera pans to a net-curtained, empty room. The film is a painting, impressionistic, its colours aping those of the pantone swatches – greys, blues and browns, muted. Then there is a woman. She wears a chocolate-brown hat. Again mimicking the photographs, we see the back of her head. Distinct then blurred – she haunts. The number eight etched on glass suddenly fills the screen, then again as a blue-enamelled house sign next to a heavy, bottle-green iron gate. (I’d started watching mid-way through and now the title comes up. ‘Chère Julie’, it reads. Who’s Julie?) The woman, now full-length in ankle-skimming brown wool skirt, navy tights and blue T-bar shoes and holding a cream parasol, is in a church. Now she’s walking through an avenue of linden trees and then standing on a pebbled approach to a beach. The camera cuts to a tan-leathered gloved hand grasping a railing, through which is seen a red-bricked, French-style villa. There are sculptures in the courtyard, heavy black patina-ed impasto-ed figures. Is that Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’? This slow reveal of details, of clues, is utterly captivating.

Still from Chere Julie by Anna Falcini


Extricating myself from the film, I peer behind the screen and see two rows of twenty-two drawings. Tiny, exquisite, red flickery marks on tracing paper. What are they? Marks of urgency, uncertainty and hesitation: they stop my breath.

On the opposite wall, facing the screen, is another drawing. It’s immense – an ultramarine circle seemingly ground into the paper. I can’t make head nor tail of it.

I stand before the glass entrance to Gallery 2 inscribed with ‘My Letters Are My Conversation’. Is there more? The door swishes open, Star Trek-like. Thirty-two yellowed sepia antique postcards of Parisian sights such as the Bois de Boulogne and the Dôme des Invalides line the back and side walls of the first room, while a female voice, alternately talking, singing, and sometimes caterwauling, commands the space. Opposite the wall of postcards is a book on a blue cushion with a pair of white cotton gloves next to it. More letters; extracts of letters, handwritten, some-crossed out, some re-written. I recognise them. Here is the source of the red-marked drawings – John’s corrections, lifted from the letters, copied and transposed. In the final room there are reference books, videos, the artist’s workings generously shared. Julie, the number 8 and the blue circle now all made clear.

On leaving, I pause to scan the Comments Board. Amid the ‘Marvellous’, ‘Haunting’ and ‘I could watch the film all day’ there is such vitriol. ‘What a waste of time and space!’ one begins, ‘So much research wasted on so little,’ reads another. I feel as if I’ve been punched.

In Between the Folds is a consummate piece of work, elegantly curated. And, whether you know John or not, it’s as wistfully beautiful as the internalised replaying of a long-remembered, much-yearned-for affaire de coeur and calls to be visited again and again and again.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer based in Aberystwyth.

This exhibition runs at Oriel Davies, Newtown, until 5 June 2019

Film still from ‘Chère Julie’ by Anna Falcini’s In Between the Folds are Particles.

       


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